Semuliki national park

Semuliki national park is situated in Bundibugyo district in the western region of Uganda. The park shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The gazetted area is nestled between Lake Albert to the north and the Rwenzori Mountains to the east and surrounded by the Lamia and Semliki rivers.

Semuliki national park was originally established as the Bwamba forest reserve in 1932 and underwent a transformation in 1993. This transition aimed to combat deforestation and preserve the region’s rich biodiversity.

The park’s topography, characterised by relatively flat terrain, faces occasional flooding during the rainy season. Semliki National Park is a home of tropical lowland forest, with an average altitude of 700m. This lush expanse forms an ecological extension with the Ituri forest, stretching over 500 km to the River Congo in Central Africa. This connection allows the park to host a diverse array of bird species and trees native to Central Africa.

Unlike the weather conditions experienced in other national parks of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, Semliki National Park offers a climate more similar to Central Africa. 

Flora and fauna in Semuliki national park

Semuliki national park boasts an incredibly diverse flora, thriving within its various ecological sites. The predominant tree, the Uganda ironwood (Cynometra alexandri), dominates the landscape. Additionally, the park hosts several Congolese species, reaching the easternmost extent of their range.

The park is home to an impressive array of 60 mammal species, including unique inhabitants exclusive to Uganda. Among these are the pygmy antelope, two varieties of flying squirrels, and six types of bats. Notably, Semliki National Park stands as the sole East African stronghold for the peculiar water chevrotain (fanged deer), a relic from an ancient ungulate family, displaying structural similarities with pigs and considered an ancestor to modern-day antelopes, deer, cows, and giraffes.

Eight diurnal primates grace the park, including the red-tailed monkey, vervet monkey, blue and de Brazza’s monkey, gray-cheeked mangabey, olive baboon, black and white colobus, and chimpanzee. Other notable large mammals include elephants, buffaloes, sitatunga, bushpigs, and white-bellied duiker. Along the Semliki River, common sightings include hippos and crocodiles.

The park’s vibrant ecosystem extends to its insect population, with over 300 butterfly species identified, including 46 species of forest swallowtail, alongside 235 moth species.

Semuliki national park is a birdwatcher’s paradise, hosting over 435 bird species. The checklist features 35 Guinea-Congo forest biome bird species endemic to East Africa, such as the spot-breasted ibis, Congo serpent eagle, Hartlaub’s duck, Gabon woodpecker, black dwarf hornbill, long-tailed hawk, red-rumped tinkerbird, and chestnut-flanked goshawk, among others. An additional 12 species, with limited distribution in East Africa, offer a rewarding experience for those spending time in Semliki National Park, including the yellow-throated cuckoo, blue-headed flycatcher, Xavier’s greenbul, western bronze-naped pigeon, capuchin babbler, crested malimbe, and red-billed helmet shrike, among others.

What to do and see in Semuliki national park

Semliki National Park offers a variety of activities, ensuring a diverse and fulfilling experience for all visitors. From birding and game viewing to chimpanzee tracking and cultural encounters, the park provides an array of options for an enriching safari.

Bird watching

Semuliki national park stands as a premier destination for bird enthusiasts in Uganda, offering a remarkable diversity of avian species. The park harbors half of the bird species found in the Democratic Republic of Congo as it is an extension of the greater Ituri forest that stretches up to  river zaire. This facilitates the movement of central African species into park boundaries.Birdwatching within Semliki National Park is done in various locations, including the forest, the surroundings of the Sempaya hot springs, and the area behind the rangers’ post.

Noteworthy bird species to spot during your birdwatching expedition include the African Dwarf Kingfishers,Brown-crowned Eremomela, African Piculet, Bates’ Nightjar, Black Dwarf Hornbill,Eastern Bearded Greenbuls,Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Black-collared Lovebird, Black-wattled Hornbills, African Goshawk, Ayres Hawk-Eagle, Cassin’s Spinetail, Great Sparrows, Red-rumped Tinkerbird,Red-thighed Sparrows, White-spotted Flufftail, Black-winged Starling, Chestnut-breasted Negro finches, Chestnut-flanked Goshawk, Chocolate-backed, Crested Malimbes, Piping Hornbills, Forest Francolin, Forest Thrushes, Gabon Woodpecker, Spotted Lyre-tailed Honeyguides,Grant’s Bluebill, Green-tailed Bristlebill, Grey Ground Thrushes, Hartlaubs’s Duck, Ituri Batis, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Northern Bearded Scrub Robin, Pale-fronted finches, Red-bellied Malimbes, Red-billed Dwarf, Red-billed Helmet Shrike, Red-chested Owlet, Red-eyed Puff-back, Red-sided Broadbill, Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Simple Greenbulls, Spot-breasted Ibis, Western Bronze-napped Pigeon, White-bellied Kingfisher, White-throated Blue Swallow, Yellow-throated Nicator, and Zenker’s Honeyguides.

As the day transitions to evening, the park reveals its nocturnal residents, with the distinctive calls of the African Wood Owl and the Buff-spotted Flufftail echoing through the surroundings. 

Sempaya Hot Springs

These are the most popular tourist attractions in Semuliki National Park. The place has local tales that are used for explanation more than scientific information. 

The park comprises two distinct springs, the male hot spring which is known as Bintente covers  a diameter of approximately 12 meters, while the female counterpart is named Nyasimbi. These hot springs showcase boiling geysers unleash steam and bubbling water, shooting several meters high and visible from over a kilometer away. The water coming from these springs carries an excessive heat which is capable of boiling eggs within ten minutes.

Historically, the forest’s inhabitants utilized the hot springs for cooking, a practice now limited by park management to preserve the site for tourist exploration. As visitors approach the hot springs, they are able to spot various bird species and small primates on branches of trees and some climbing. To facilitate safe observation, park authorities have constructed a tower and boardwalk, allowing visitors to have a good spot for the hot springs from a comfortable distance. The park also offers additional attractions including the Mungiro Falls and nearby forest walks. Visitors can also partake in cultural experiences provided by local tribes, who organize traditional dances to entertain and immerse visitors in the culture of Semuliki National Park.

Cultural tours

The area of Semuliki National Park is a home to four indigenous tribes, each offering visitors a unique cultural experience for instance;

The Batwa pygmies, known for their skills in hunting and forest gathering, showcase a way of life deeply intertwined with the natural surroundings. However, the impact of tourism and modernization has brought about significant changes, particularly affecting the Batwa community. Historically residing freely in the forests of Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo, some Batwa groups have been relocated to areas outside national parks. In Semuliki National Park, efforts, including support from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and assistance from the Christian organization ADRA, have been made to resettle some Batwa near Ntandi. Some Batwa get support from UWA as they are able to showcase their cultural heritage through dance performances, engaging storytelling, and informative demonstrations. Despite these endeavors, challenges persist, with many Batwa expressing a yearning for their former forest-dwelling lifestyle.

Cultural encounters extend to the Bakonjo and Bamba tribes, engaged in agriculture on the slopes of Mount Rwenzori. Their cultivation practices include crops like rice, matooke/bananas, potatoes, and cocoa. Meanwhile, the Batuku are pastoralists residing in the northern section of the park.

It’s crucial to approach these cultural exchanges recognizing the evolving dynamics and the delicate balance between preserving traditions and adapting to the forces of modernity. The Batwa, for instance, engage in the cultivation and traditional use of Marijuana, a practice reflective of their historical roots and cultural expressions.

Game drives

Semuliki National Park game drives provide opportunities to encounter the diverse array of over 52 mammal species that call this park home. There are different trails that can be used during the activity that pass through the savannah plains.

Both day and night game drives are thoughtfully arranged by the park’s dedicated staff. 

For optimal exploration, it’s advisable to bring along a four-wheel-drive vehicle, especially during the rainy season when certain sections of the park may present challenges. 

Exploring Semuliki river

Semuliki River covers 160 kilometers and it winds its way through the forested landscapes. This muddy river serves as a vital water source for the Nile River. Tourists take leisure walks along its meandering path through forests and rift valley flowers.

The riverbanks are home for a diverse array of wildlife, including crocodiles, hippos and bird species  that find solace in the river’s embrace. 

When  to visit Semuliki national park

Semuliki National Park welcomes visitors year-round, however, the best month to visit the park is  during dry seasons from April to June and July to September. During these months the park is easily accessed since there is less mud. The rainy seasons, starting from December to March and October to November, bring challenges for navigating through the park. The increased rainfall during these periods may lead to certain sections of the park becoming flooded as rivers fill with water. 

How to access Semuliki national park

The journey from Kampala to Semuliki National Park has two distinct routes, each offering a unique experience for travelers. It is a 300 km distance from the capital city to the park.

The shorter option involves taking the Kampala to Fort Portal road via Mubende which takes 4-5 hour drive. Alternatively, travelers can opt for the longer route through the towns of Kasese, Mbarara, and Masaka, extending the journey to 7- 8 hours.  This route gives tourists an opportunity to visit other Uganda’s national parks like Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori Mountains, and Lake Mburo.

Upon reaching Fort Portal town it takes more 52 km to the junction guiding travelers to Semuliki National Park from the main highway. It is essential to note that a reliable 4 Wheel drive becomes imperative, particularly during the wet season, when park roads may pose challenges.

For those using public transportation, one can use a taxi to Bundibugyo from Fort Portal town becomes the next step. Alighting at the Sempaya gate of the park, located 5 kilometers away from the Park offices in Ntandi as the final stop of the journey to the park. However, public transport to Bundibugyo may not always adhere to a strict schedule as  it requires passengers to exercise patience, especially during evening hours.